By George Harvey
Facts sometimes imply things that are not true. Some facts used to promote natural gas are like that.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal. Because of this fact, its carbon footprint is said to be only 50% to 60% of that of coal. This suggests that since coal produces almost 30% of our electric power, we can reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of electric production by 15% or more simply by refitting our coal plants to burn natural gas and bringing in the gas pipelines to feed them. And it is a fact that we do have plenty of natural gas from fracking.
These facts, however, tell only part of the story. Methane, the key component of natural gas, is 20 to 100 times as bad as carbon dioxide in its planet-warming effects, so we can only be sure it has lower greenhouse gas effects than coal if we know that none of it leaks. So the question is, does it leak, and if so, how much?
Satellite imagery over North American gas fields indicates that an average of 5.4% of the methane is leaking at the source. That little leakage would make natural gas as bad as coal or worse. That, however, is not the end of the problem. Gas also leaks from both storage facilities and pipelines.
Many of us have heard about a gas leak in California. The gas was stored in a depleted oil well in the Porter Ranch neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was compressed to 2,700 pounds per square inch pressure, about a quarter of the pressure in the chamber of a shotgun when it is fired. Several attempts to stop the leak have only made matters worse. Since October, about 1,400 tons of methane have leaked per day, and the leak is not expected to be plugged until the beginning of March. Thousands of residents have been forced to flee, many with such symptoms as nausea and bloody noses.
The extent of the Porter Ranch Leak seems not to have been understood until a pilot flew an airplane with a methane sensor over it. Methane itself is odorless, so natural gas has very smelly gasses added to it to warn people of a leak. The pilot, in his airplane, was made sick by the smell or those gasses.
This is not the only problem, however. There are probably hundreds of thousands or even millions of smaller leaks that go on, often uncorrected. In 2012, a professor and students from Boston University drove a car over all the streets in Boston to locate gas leaks. They covered 785 miles of city streets and found 3,300 leaks. The Conservation Law Foundation duplicated the test and found 4,000 leaks. It is estimated that there are over 20,000 leaks in Massachusetts alone.
These leaks can kill small animals and vegetation. They can cause severe medical problems in human beings. More to the point, however, leaks can fill building spaces with flammable gasses, which can cause fires and explosions. Green Energy Times’ editor was near one explosion from a propane pipeline in No. Blenheim, New York in 1990. A cloud of propane rolled into the community, catching fire soon after it got there. Two people were killed, eight houses were destroyed, and there were millions of dollars in damage. The experience is worth knowing about as one considers approving a pipeline in your community. Accounts of this tragedy are at: http://bit.ly/N-Blenheim-1; http://bit.ly/N-Blenheim-2; http://bit.ly/N-Blenheim-3.
Natural gas does not form vapor clouds that flow over the ground the way propane does. What it does instead is hardly better. For example, methane from a pipeline leak sometimes passes through the ground and accumulates in the basement of a building, accumulating until it ignites explosively. Of course, this is not the only way a failure can happen. Gas appliances and household pipes can fail, and such problems develop fairly regularly.
The question of whether we really need new pipelines is worth asking. Last year, an independent study for Massachusetts’ Attorney General found the state needed none. It is worth asking whether we should even be using natural gas, a fossil fuel. With the costs of solar and wind power declining, Lazard Associates, whose annual studies of the cost of electricity are well known and respected, says the lowest cost electricity from natural gas is not only beat by wind power, but also edged out by solar.
So in answer to the question: No. We do not need natural gas at all, except for the short term. We are better off ditching natural gas as quickly as we can.